The First Shot

Shipping software is an art form. Trying to balance the right feature set within a reasonable time frame is a challenging exercise. Being able to see through the haze of feature requests — an important thing to have, by the way — to see the bigger picture issues. Sometimes, Infinity Softworks has been good at this and sometimes it has not. The wrong mix is poison.

If there are too many features and not enough vision then the product is satisfying to those who wanted those features but not endearing to anyone. It does the job, they will say, which frankly is the kiss of death. After all when something cooler comes along, your product will be dropped like a lead balloon. As unit volumes come in, it’s increasingly clear that Nokia has fallen into this trap. It does the job. But BlackBerry and iPhone are cooler and are now stealing sales. (See data here.)

If there is too much vision and not enough features then there’s no product. People can’t relate to it and thus they don’t buy it. An example doesn’t come to mind off the top of my head (these products usually die quickly) but one company who has figured out a strategy for dealing with this problem is Microsoft. They like to use an “Embrace and Extend” strategy. For instance, they embraced email and extended it to integrate personal information management in Outlook, at the time a visionary perspective.

The trick is that this combination has to be managed with EVERY PRODUCT RELEASE. So we recently shipped FastFigures Mobile for iPhone and iPod Touch. (Direct link to AppStore here.) The features are 30 (mostly) finance- and business-oriented calculator templates, an algebraic and RPN calculator that doubles as a number entry keypad, and the template format — a cross between a calculator and spreadsheet — for doing fast analysis. What’s the vision for release 1? Easily do quick calculations on the go.

Is it feature and vision complete? No, not by a long shot. But it’s a solid start with what I think is the right mix of features and vision for the first release.

To Flash or Not To Flash? That’s The Question

I’ve been following the news out of the Mobile World Congress (MWC). There are probably two items that struck my fancy: the first is the debate raging in the mobile world regarding Adobe Flash on smartphones and the second is the lack of Android/plethora of Windows Mobile announcements. I’ll address the first this week and talk about the second later on.

Ah… Flash. To some it is the holy grail. To others it’s bloated c***-ware that’s run its course. Flash, if you are unaware, is a programming language that runs in the browser. It was invented by Adobe to provide browser functionality that wasn’t native to the web languages of CSS and HTML. Probably its most popular use in the early 2000s was as a way to deliver interactive advertising on sites like Yahoo!, but over the years it has been used to develop web-based applications as well, such as Quicken Online.

Here’s the problem: Flash is an intensive memory hog designed for desktop use and that makes it difficult to use on mobile devices. After all, who wants half the battery time.

The news: at MWC Adobe announced a consortium of mobile platforms — including Nokia and Palm — who will support the development of a full version of Flash that runs on their devices. Why is this creating a stir in the mobile world? Steve Jobs, Apple’s CEO, announced vehemently that Flash would never run on an iPhone. Now the world is a-twitter with “has Apple missed the boat” conversation.

The reality, however, is that Flash on a mobile device doesn’t really matter. It’s a dying platform on the web anyway, being replaced by a JavaScript protocol called AJAX that’s far less memory intensive, supported by all the browsers, and not controlled by any single entity, a holy grail for the open-standards web.

Who does Flash on mobile help? The market followers. Those crying for Flash on mobile point to Twitter clients and Facebook clients and the like. But those applications are already available at Apple’s AppStore, the market leader for third-party software. It’s everyone else that benefits from it as they get Twitter clients and Facebook clients without having to worry about significant additional development, hypothetically. Significant is the key word, of course, because some changes have to take place to work on the small, smartphone screen.

So what do I think? I think the entire conversation is a distraction. The reality is this: if Palm sells 25 million units in its first two years and sets up an effective software sales and distribution model then developers will flock to the platform, writing applications using its native development tools. And if Palm doesn’t sell millions then it doesn’t matter if Flash runs on the Pre or not as no developer will spend time optimizing their code for a couple thousand users.

The New Palm. Same As The Old Palm?

It appears in early January that Palm will announce their new operating system, devices and direction. It is believed that the new Palm will also be the only Palm operating system used by the company, dropping the old Palm OS and Windows Mobile in favor of this new platform. (They’d keep supporting WinMo for its corporate clients only.)

I’m skeptical that Palm can survive this transition. It isn’t 1996 any more. The mobile market back then had no major players. Palm was able to build every thing without having direct competition. Now all parties — customers, carriers, developers — have huge expectations. And there may be too much history with all three for Palm to woo them back into the fold. A brief explanation for each:

Customers have spent the past six years hearing how Palm is bringing out their next operating system. Most seem to have migrated to Windows Mobile, BlackBerry and iPhone at this point. Let’s face it, the Palm OS is antiquated, looking and feeling like yesterday’s technology. And with the company on the ropes financially, there is a big dis-incentive to acquire one of their devices.

Apple was in a similar situation when Palm was coming into existence ten years ago. Apple, though, had a legendary founder back in the fold and a new deal struck with Microsoft to ensure its survival. Palm will need some similar move to live through this one.

There’s an interesting alignment occurring among the carriers here in the States. Exclusives are all the rage. Apple partnered with AT&T, RIM launched its BlackBerry Storm exclusively with Verizon, and Google launched Android exclusively with T-Mobile. On the surface we are returning to a world where if you want a certain device you have to switch carriers to get it.

It makes sense for carriers and companies to partner like this, of course, as developing hardware for one specific carrier platform is a lot more efficient than doing it for all of them. And the carriers can push one major product, differentiating themselves from everyone else. But if this trend holds true, it also has the effect of locking out new participants in the market. Where does Palm go? Sprint, a distant number four in the carrier races? Well… they did with the Centro. But this doesn’t necessarily get them the exposure they need to be successful. And what happens when Nokia comes calling? Does Palm get back-burnered for the next latest and greatest? It’s a vicious cycle: Palm comes out on a smaller carrier, doesn’t get huge sales, the carrier then feels they wasted time and money and doesn’t promote the product, which then supresses sales even further.

Excuse my bluntness, but Palm screwed their developer community. In 1999-2000, Palm used to talk in terms of the Palm Economy. But when the chips were down rather than doubling down on its community, the company decided it was easy enough to make a quick buck off of us. Palm, who spent years wooing developers to its vertical markets, suddenly dropped those vertical markets leaving its developers to hold the bag. Resellers went from charging 20-30% of each product sold in 2000 to 65-70% in 2008 (for reference, the world’s largest online reseller Amazon charges 25% and holds physical inventory). In addition, they added restrictions on what we could do with customer information and required our own web sites to be removed from our products, meaning we had to develop a special version of our software for each reseller.

There are great alternatives out there now on other platforms. With Apple, RIM, Google, Microsoft and others, there is a direct marketing channel (or soon will be) that reduces our support costs by eliminating installation issues and charges a reasonable 20-30% of our retail price.

Given that, all will be forgiven if Palm can sell enough devices. At the end of the day, developers will gravitate toward any platform that sells lots of units and makes it reasonable for us to sell our wares.

But with the markets working against them on all three fronts, it will be quite a challenge to do so. If nothing else, Palm will have an intellectual asset that could be a catalyst for company acquisition. A year ago, with one outdated operating system and another licensed, Palm had nothing to sell. At least now, it might.

We’ll all find out the first week of January.